Hands-on politicians are up to their elbows in education

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If you read through this year's state of the state addresses, you'll find a breathtaking array of concerns, from too many chickens in Delaware to too few highway lanes in Colorado. But on one issue, many of these speeches might have been penned by the same hand - righting what's wrong with public education.

It's the rare governor who does not insist that all children should read by the end of third grade, that teachers should be held to higher standards, and that failing schools should be fixed or shut down.

"When an NFL coach has one losing season after another, he gets replaced. Period. End of subject. I say we should be just as decisive when our children's future is at stake," said California Gov. Gray Davis (D) in his Jan. 6 address.

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This new hands-on-the-schools approach knows no party label. Both Democratic and Republican governors are proposing options such as report cards for schools, higher standards for students and teachers, and contracts that commit parents to more involvement in their children's schooling. Many are building national reputations on what they are able to accomplish in improving public schools.

"We must never leave any child behind by pushing him forward," said Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) in his Jan. 19 inaugural address. "I refuse to give up on any child, and that is why I argue so passionately against social promotion."

Back of the speeches, a major shift is under way in American education, and policymakers are just beginning to come to terms with its implications.

Education in the United States has long been a local function, but statehouses are taking an ever-stronger hand in setting standards for what is to be taught and for what counts as success. At the same time, President Clinton is staking out a stronger role for the federal government.

In his State of the Union address on Jan. 19, the president promised to send to Congress a plan that for the first time holds states and school districts accountable for progress and rewards them for results. He proposes using the $15 billion that Washington now sends to schools to leverage key state and local reforms.

At one time, it was enough for schools to show that federal dollars were being spent for their designated purpose. But to qualify for federal funds in the future, school districts must commit to specific reforms such as ending social promotion, the practice of allowing students to advance to the next grade before meeting the requirements of the last.

Districts must also publish report cards on every school, shut down or fix failing schools, require new teachers to pass performance exams, adopt discipline policies, and promote more choice for parents and students in the public system.

Many states have already adopted some of these policies. Nearly half of the states have policies to intervene in low-performing schools; 26 now require tests for student promotion or graduation; and 36 mandate report cards on every school.

But even states that have embraced some version of these standards are wary of federal intrusion. Federal funds account for less than 8 percent of what the nation spends on its public schools, and critics argue that that's not enough to call the shots on local policy.

"If Clinton passes most of the decisionmaking to the states, we'll be right with him and this will go through the Congress in a quick, bipartisan fashion," says Jay Diskey, spokesman for Rep. Bill Goodling (R), chairman of the House Education & Workforce Committee. "But if the president chooses to have the Department of Education set the criteria for teacher performance standards or write the criteria for banning social promotion, you'll see huge fights."

These issues will be engaged when Congress takes up reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this spring. The act, which targets aid to special-needs children, has been the cornerstone of federal policy since 1965, and faces accountability issues of its own.

A 1997 study commissioned by the Department of Education failed to find any measurable benefits from this program. Researchers found that the $7 billion Chapter I (now Title I) program added only an average of 10 minutes of extra instructional time per day, and that little was done to hold schools accountable for raising the performance of students.

Some Republicans want to end such programs and pass the savings on to states or school districts as block grants, to spend on their own priorities, or to be used as vouchers. This month, the American Federation of Teachers urged members to send in Title I "success stories," as the No. 2 teacher's union prepares for what its lobbyists are calling "a tough, tough battle" to persuade lawmakers that the ESEA should not be overhauled.

*Send e-mail to chaddockg@csps.com

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